As the mother of a young daughter there is a fear, deep rooted in my heart that one day she will turn to me - big blue eyes shining - and say “Mammy, can I do Irish dancing?”
It’s not that I object to our national dance and I certainly don’t object to her learning how to do it. My fear, dear reader, lies completely and totally with the all encompassing culture that comes with it.
From the dresses, the wigs, the fake tans, the made up faces - there is so much about Irish dancing that screams to me that we have taken a beautiful form of dance and exploited it to a grotesque level. (I will write the rest of this column hidden under my desk awaiting the barrage of abuse from Feis mammies and dance teachers alike).
Not that long ago I watched ‘Toddlers and Tiaras’ - which is a programme shown on Sky about the American beauty pageants. Children from newborns are up and carted around the States, primped and preened, taught to perform, leggered in fake tan and put on stage to impress the judges.
The programme had me cringing. I felt for the wee critters who so desperately wanted to win.
I felt horrified at how they were dressed up like mini adults in their ballgowns and wigs, with tiaras and extravagant hair pieces.
I doubt many of us will forget the images of little JonBenet Ramsey - the six year-old beauty queen who was murdered at her home in 1996. Dressed in clothes more befitting of a Las Vegas show girl, with hair teased and tossed like an extra from Dynasty - it all looked so wrong.
Watching ‘Toddlers and Tiaras’ I wondered what kind of childhood these youngsters must have to spend their weekends and holidays competing and practising and trying to impress people constantly. This is no lifestyle of an occasional competition in between running about playing and having the craic with their friends. This was full on obsessive competing. At first I sagged with relief that we didn’t do that kind of thing here in Ireland. Sure we let our wains be wains, I told myself.
And then the Feis came to town again and I was reminded, by the smiling pictures of bewigged, fake-tanned, grinning dancers that maybe we do have our very own version of the American pageants. Irish dancing may be intrinsically linked with our culture and heritage but, let’s be honest, the culture which has grown around it in recent years most certainly is not.
I would have a blue canary if my daughter asked me to buy her dress at the cost of hundreds to dance in (and from what I hear ‘hundreds’ is a conservative estimate). She has natural, beautiful curls herself. If she asked me to buy a mammoth wig at a mammoth cost to make her ‘look better’ she’d get short shrift.
If she wanted clattered in fake tan I would tell her to catch herself on and come back to me when she is 16... or 30... or some altogether more suitable age for wearing make up and Fake Bake.
Children, from no age, are traipsed around the country and further afield where they dress up and dance and look for that same approval from their peers. Entire childhoods, it seems, are caught up in this Feis, or that championship and who has the nicest (read that as ‘most expensive’) dress or biggest wig.
For those who think I have a problem with competition I do not. Competition can be healthy. Our children, of course, have to learn that sometimes they will win and sometimes they will lose. But as is the case with the American pageants - sometimes it feels to me as if not enough credit is given to our young people for just “doing their best”.
Hobbies are, of course, to be welcomed. We hear a lot, again, in this city about young people and anti-social behaviour and how we should have alternative activities available for our children. This I welcome wholeheartedly - but does it have to be so over the top?
Can we not just have girls in simple dresses dancing? Can we not just show off their natural, youthful beauty and their natural curls? Can we not calm down on the competitive element and allow it to be more about having fun and getting some exercise and embracing our heritage?
We don’t need the fuss. We don’t need the obsession.
We absolutely and catagorically do not need to dress our little girls up like glorified Barbie dolls (and believe me I’m not even getting started on the hip hop dancers and their costumes because I wouldn’t know where to stop)?
The beauty should be in the dance - in the natural movement of the girls dancing and displaying their technical skills. It shouldn’t be in ornate dresses and overdone make up.
And while we are letting our girls look natural, can we let them act naturally as little girls do as well?
Let them play and have fun and, if they want to, let them take part in the odd competition.
Above all this remind them time and time again that doing their best is more than good enough and that they are successful just as they are.